Museums as Community Advocates Part I

We have much to learn from how museums around the world are accountable to their local communities. For this reason, we are pleased to host our first international perspective: Alicia Akins from the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Center (TAEC) in Laos. TAEC sounds like very interesting museum where social inclusion is centered on a deep commitment to its local community. Alicia’s contribution will be split into tow posts, so be sure to check in next week for Part II.

Last March, as my graduate school career came to a close, I had hopes of finding work in a museum. A month later, I discovered the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre (TAEC) in Laos through a job listing on Idealist. During the application process, as I probed deeper into TAEC’s culture and vision, it soon became clear that TAEC was more than a museum.

Front room of TAEC’s exhibit space. Photo Courtesy: TAEC.

Front room of TAEC’s exhibit space. Photo Courtesy: TAEC.

TAEC exists because two rather brilliant women—one with a background in collections management and the other in sustainable tourism and community development—recognized a lack of awareness and accessible information about the artisanal and ethnic diversity of Laos. They also saw that amidst the myriad lifestyle changes Lao people were undergoing, there was a very real danger that the traditional knowledge needed to produce the beautiful and storied handicrafts found throughout homes, adorning bodies, and used during special festivals could be lost. TAEC was their response to the under-celebrated peoples and crafts of Laos—a service, if you will, for people who might not realize what was at stake until it was too late.  TAEC seeks to build appreciation and awareness through exhibits, local school outreach, and onsite cultural events while also providing a financially sustainable way for over 600 poor rural handicraft producers to continue practicing their arts through its fair-trade shop and handicraft training program. For museum professionals, “appreciation” and “awareness” are familiar territory. However, with phrases like “pride,” “self-determination,” “advocacy,” and “sustainable livelihood development,” TAEC seemed to me like a development agency hiding in a museum’s clothes: a hybrid educational and community development centre for the peoples of Laos.

School Outreach. Photo Courtesy: TAEC

School Outreach. Photo Courtesy: TAEC

I must confess I’m not really a museum person. Well into adulthood, if my friends managed to get me into a museum at all, I was the first one out. I don’t remember when I first thought that museums could be—no, that they should be—more, ­but by the time I was looking for work both interesting and meaningful to begin my career, I was committed to the idea that museums should not be static places that entertained an elite group of enthusiasts and intellectuals and that they shouldn’t merely aim to capture more of the same kinds of visitors that they always had. In my mind, the most exciting work to be done in a museum was reaching out to people who, for whatever reason, were not engaged or represented.  I was also interested in capacity building and TAEC is a young private museum staffed by Lao nationals, most of whom have only high school educations.

So, at least on paper, TAEC seemed perfect for me and, to my delight, it wasn’t just on paper. Since coming on as the Programmes Director eight months ago, I continue to be impressed and captivated by TAEC’s mission to promote pride and appreciation for the diversity of Laos’ peoples and crafts, to support ethnic communities to safeguard their own cultural heritage, and to promote sustainable livelihood development.

One of the directors leading a handicraft training session with village handicraft producers. Photo Courtesy: TAEC

One of the directors leading a handicraft training session with village handicraft producers. Photo Courtesy: TAEC

Stay tunned…

Alicia joined the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre as the Programmes Director in May 2012 and brings to the Centre a diverse background in education, international studies, and museology.  She has several years’ experience working in education both in the United States and in China and just completed a Master’s in International Studies focusing on Chinese cultural history and museums. In September, she was a speaker at the Asia-European Museums Association discussing TAEC’s approach to sustainability through education. At TAEC she is responsible for developing new school outreach and public programmes, fundraising, marketing, and making general recommendations for improvement about the organization’s sustainability, management, and operations. For questions or comments she can be reached at

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One comment

  1. […] her previous post, Alicia Akins, Programmes Director at the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Center (TAEC), […]

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